"The Potato Masher Murder" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Updated: Jun 8
Researching family histories has become a popular pastime in recent years. Websites are dedicated to that purpose, television programs are based on celebrity ancestry searches and a growing number of genealogical societies are sprouting family trees for fee-paying clients.
Sometimes these quests uncover long-held family secrets that disturb and shock the researcher. This occurred to Gary Sosniecki who looked into the story of his great grandparents who immigrated from Scotland and Germany, found love, and married in 1901. As he dug into that family history he discovered that in 1906 his great grandmother Cecilia was beaten by her second husband Albin Ludwig and then set afire.
When he investigated this dark incident further, he learned that Albin had caught his wife with other men and was driven by suspicion to secretly follow her one night in order to catch her in the act. The two fought that night and again the next day. Their final argument ended when Albin struck Cecilia unconscious with a wooden potato masher, doused her with a flammable liquid and set her ablaze.
As Sosniecki delved further into their story, he learned that Cecilia had been as violent to Ludwig as he was to her. In court Albin claimed self-defense for Cecilia’s hateful behavior, but at the end of the trial he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In a non-exploitative way, this true-crime book depicts societal 1906 attitudes toward women who engaged in adultery and men who were responsible for “wife murders”. Newspaper coverage of the heinous crime and the dramatic trial, which took place in Mishawaka, Indiana, was jarringly graphic and exhaustive. Peter Young of the “South Bend Times” wrote at the time that the murder’s “horrors and its shocking features... have never before been witnessed in Mishawaka.”
Yet, Sosniecki found that wife-beating was commonplace in the early 20th century and “wife murder” was also quite widespread. The book debunks the idea that “the good old days” were “more innocent times”. With troubled marriages, domestic abuse, and spousal murder, 1906 Mishawaka was no Mayberry.
This true-crime book is engrossing, adeptly written, and researched in depth. It is an entertaining read, but its long-term contribution may be the insights it provides into the daily life of a typical midwestern town in the early 1900s. The author skillfully provides a lens into the daily living patterns of that era—what people ate, the insurance policies they carried, the jobs they held and the schedules they kept in that era.
The author's exhaustive research allowed him to report details of the dark family secret from contemporary newspaper accounts and the actual transcript of the trial of Albin Ludwig.
To his credit as a seasoned newspaper reporter and editor, Sosniecki sticks to the facts. However, as a result, the individual affect and the inner workings of the protagonists are absent from this depiction of the story. He brings this unspeakable crime scene to life, but the reader never really gets to know what makes this husband and wife “tick,” nor the motivations for their egregious behaviors.
About the author:
Retired journalist Gary Sosniecki worked at newspapers during his 43-year career. He received the Eugene Cervi Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors and was inducted into the Missouri Press Association Hall of Fame in 2014.
The Kent State University Press is the publisher of this 211-page, indexed book that includes several pages of family pictures.